- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

California officials were in race with destruction or death or both, they couldn't be sure. They were trying to repair levees north of Sacramento before the next big floods arrived. Without the reconstruction work, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned, "loss of human life is expected."
Unfortunately for the region, government officials discovered habitat for the endangered Elderberry Longhorn Beetle on the levees. The same Corps that warned of impending doom forced local officials to spend six long years building new habitat for the beetles per the Endangered Species Act before allowing the repair work to begin. When the floods came in early 1997, the work wasn't done. The levees buckled, and the torrent inundated 25 square miles, drove 32,000 people from their homes, killed three people and, yes, wiped out the bug habitat too.
With any luck, persons living near North Dakota's Devil's Lake won't suffer the same fate. The state's federal lawmakers are pressing the Corps to get on with a $100 million flood-control project there that would reduce the hazard of floods in the region. But they aren't trusting their fate to luck alone. No sir. As this newspaper's Rowan Scarborough reported, North Dakota lawmakers have twisted political arms to get the work moving, environmental regulations be, um, dammed. Army Secretary Louis Caldera, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Budget Director Jack Lew and even President Clinton have gotten involved.
"They recognize that we may not be able to meet our usual standards for such work," said one Corps internal memo that Mr. Scarborough obtained, "but nevertheless they expect a document… . I explained that it was our honest professional opinion that we could not do a credible and defensible job of preparing, coordinating and filing an 'environmental impact statement' before construction."
Too bad for the environment. An Army civilian official told the Corps in one memo that the administration and secretary of the Army expected the agency to make every effort to meet the "administration's goals" with respect to Devil's Lake. "In case you have any doubt about the urgency of this matter," the memo continued, "the president personally told me that he wants this issue resolved."
It's amazing how flexible this administration can be with respect to environmental regulations when it comes to dealing with a state with two Democratic senators demanding action. (California Republican Rep. Wally Herger, perhaps the most outspoken lawmaker in connection with the flood disaster in that state, didn't get quite the same response.) North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad is only doing his job in trying to protect his constituents from disaster. He calls flood-control work there a "race" against catastrophe, and one can only hope North Dakota residents win.
The question is how lawmakers, to say nothing of ordinary citizens, can win their own fights with an agency bent on obstruction when they can't pick up the phone and ask their friends at the White House to help out. Consider two routine horror stories involving the Corps that had unhappy, albeit not life-threatening, consequences for those involved.
In the early 1990s, the conservationist owners of the Sebastiani Vineyards in California decided to build private wetlands habitat for waterfowl and brought in the likes of Ducks Unlimited experts, design engineers and more to do the job. Problem was that to keep water on the family's land and off the neighbors, the builders constructed a levee equivalent to about an acre of land. Given that the project was creating roughly 90 acres of wetlands, it seemed like a plausible trade. But not to the Corps. The levee construction had illegally filled wetlands, the agency said. The family had to build additional wetlands to offset the "damage," which along with other bureaucratic requirements roughly tripled the length and cost of the work. Let no good deed go unpunished.
In Maine, an elderly couple in declining health tried to sell a piece of coastline property they had owned for two decades to a developer. The sale was to help them through retirement. The Corps stepped in to block the sale, declaring it a federally protected wetland. For several years they made the couple jump through one regulatory hoop after another, all to no avail.
It wasn't until Gaston and Monique Roberge got pro-bono help from a Washington lawyer and from a former Corps official that they discovered there was no scientific or legal basis to identify the property as a wetland, only the animus of a regulator. "Roberge would be a good one to squash and set an example," said a memo obtained during an ensuing court proceeding. It was signed "Jay Clement, formerly the Maytag repairman." Get it? In 1994, the Corps (read: taxpayers) paid the Roberges more than $300,000 to settle the case out of court.
Neither the Roberges, the Sebastianis or those who died in the California floods could pick up the phone and call in the White House to get relief from an intransigent Army Corps. It's good to know Mr. Conrad can. If he wins his "race," perhaps he would look more kindly on legislative reform that would help less politically powerful persons win theirs.
E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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